Making a wine offer that can't be refused

Sopranos "Family Made" is latest celeb label.

Former cast members of "The Sopranos" - from left, Frank Vincent, Vinny Pastore, Steve Schirippa, and Dan Grimaldi - display the Sopranos "Family Made" Wines at Resorts in Atlantic City. The wines - latest in a bountiful harvest of celebrity offerings - already are on sale in New Jersey and will reach Pennsylvania stores this month.

They came to Resorts casino, first and foremost, for the celebrities.

Who could resist the draw of New Jersey's beloved crime family - Steve Schirripa, Frank Vincent, Vinny Pastore, and Dan Grimaldi, otherwise known as Bobby Bacala, Phil Leotardo, Sal "Big Pussy" Bonpensiero, and Patsy Parisi from The Sopranos?

OK, so Tony and Carmella weren't there. Not even Christopher or Uncle Junior. But two-and-a-half years after The Sopranos ended, even the supporting cast is still an attraction, especially in Atlantic City. And star appeal is just what's needed in promoting the latest celebrity wine.

The Sopranos "Family Made" Wines, already on sale in New Jersey, hit Pennsylvania stores this month. And events like this exclusive party - where Resorts' top players got to sample the wine, nibble on cheese, and get their pictures taken with The Sopranos' stars - are all part of the celebrity wine appeal.

Celebrity wines are hot. Pro golfer Greg Norman and former Eagles coach Dick Vermeil have their own labels. So do the Doobie Brothers, rapper Lil Jon, and Motley Crue's Vince Neil, not to mention WMMR disc jockey Pierre Robert.

And former Phillie Mike Schmidt and former Flyers Bobby Clarke and Dave "The Hammer" Schultz have followed Olympic skater Peggy Fleming's lead, using their wines to raise money for charities.

The Sopranos Wines even have a family rival. Lorraine Bracco, who played Tony Soprano's psychiatrist on the HBO series, has her own line of wine. But Dr. Melfi can't be nearly as persuasive as an imposing Bobby Bacala or Big Pussy, who continually urged Resorts gamblers to "go out and buy Sopranos Wine" as they autographed boxes containing three bottles.

Even though the guys only played mobsters on TV, it was hard not to take the request as an order.

It appears that people don't mind paying up for celebrity wine. A Nielsen Company study last year showed consumers on average paid $8.50 for celebrity wine, compared with $5.75 for table wine. The vast majority of celebrity wines are priced between $12 and $15. The Sopranos Wines run from $9.99 to $29.99.

Before the recession was at full tilt, the Nielsen study showed sales of celebrity wines up 19 percent in grocery stores and 8 percent in liquor stores. But, like everything these days, celebrity wine sales are taking a hit.

The overall growth has lowered "dramatically versus this time last year," said Brian Lechner, Nielsen's client director for beverage alcohol, but celebrity wines "still outperform the category as a whole."

The reason, said Philadelphia wine maven Marnie Old, is simple: a cartoon, a funny name, and, yes, a celebrity, can help a bottle stand out.

"When you look at what's going on, it's obviously marketing driven and not wine-quality driven," Old said.

Old is not against celebrity wines. Like Anjoleena Griffin-Holst, the Borgata's wine director, she believes they help demystify wines to legions of casual drinkers.

"I find it unfair when people judge wine based on anything other than what's in the bottle," said Griffin-Holst, who has done wine events with Bracco and Fleming and hinted that a forthcoming Borgata promotion could include a wine by singer Billy Joel.

And that's part of the problem. Despite its popularity, celebrity wine has a bad rap. Many who attended the Sopranos Wines party at Resorts seemed stunned that the wine was not just drinkable, but enjoyable.

"I thought it was going to be a gimmick," said Ginny Murray, who was at the party with her husband, Willistown Township Manager Hugh Murray. "It is surprisingly good."

The upper wine echelon has been even tougher for celebrities to crack, although some, like golfers Norman and Ernie Els, as well as Hollywood's Francis Ford Coppola and Fess Parker, have become known for some quality bottlings.

Those in the celebrity wine business are very cognizant of the reputation. When the NHL Alumni Association looked for wines for its players to help raise money for charities, "we wanted it to be an affordable bottle of wine but a good bottle of wine," said Jason Zent, a former hockey player who helped develop the NHL Alumni Signature Wine Series with Ironstone Vineyards.

This year, Clarke, Schultz, and 10 other former hockey players involved in the project will be even more involved, choosing the grape varieties.

Some celebrities, like Pierre Robert, merely lend their name. A year ago, the Chaddsford Winery partnered with the DJ, slapping on a tie-dyed label with a photo of Robert on 300 cases of its pinot grigio, relabeling it "Pierreno Grigio."

Robert promoted the wine on the radio and at area restaurants. It quickly sold out, and the winery launched a second act, Pierre Noir, this month.

Robert said he was surprised by the response.

"I was thinking if this didn't work out, I'll just put it in a brown paper bag, hang out by an overpass, and ask for spare change," he said.

"I don't take anything too seriously," Robert said. "But I'm honored that anyone would choose to spend 15 bucks to buy a bottle of the wine."

Back at the Resorts casino, The Sopranos cast members took their wine very seriously. Vincent, who played the feared New York crime boss, bristled when asked whether the wine was just another gimmick.

"Not this wine, honey," he said, speaking in that trademark, gravelly mobster voice. "This is serious wine," he said. "It's made in Italy. Grown in Italy. And it's really for a connoisseur's taste."